South Korean tourists point in Hunchun, China, point toward North Korea across the Tumen River. The Russian border lies to their left.
South Korean tourists point in Hunchun, China, point toward North Korea across the Tumen River. The Russian border lies to their left.Albert Bonsfills
South Korean tourists point in Hunchun, China, point toward North Korea across the Tumen River. The Russian border lies to their left.
The Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge spans the Yalu River, connecting the cities of Dandong, China, and Sinuiju, North Korea.
A North Korean performer at a traditional musical show in a North Korean restaurant near Tumen, China.
North Korean restaurants, like this one in Yanji, China are lucrative businesses for the North Korean government and offer a window into North Korean culture for visitors.
A piece of clothing covered with sand just a few feet from the North Korean border fence next to Hunchun, China. If defectors are caught in China, they are repatriated back to North Korea to face harsh interrogations and years of punishment, or even death in political prison camps or reeducation camps.
A man observes a diorama in China’s only Korean War museum in Dandong, China. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army entered Korea to fight against the United States involvement when the Korean War broke out in 1950. Dandong, a frontier town, experienced first-hand the horrors of war.
A cave near the Yalu River in the expanding city of Dandong. Caves are used by defectors fleeing from North Korea to hide.
Security cameras in Dandong, China keep watch over a narrow stretch of the Yalu River that is sometimes crossed by North Korean defectors.
Downtown Yanji, the Chinese city with the largest concentration of ethnic Koreans in China, and a busy trade hub between China and North Korea.
A view of the Tumen river, which forms a natural border between between China and North Korea, and offers a common route for North Koreans trying to escape.
A woman in Dandong, China covers her face with a piece of cloth to protect from mosquitos. In China's border cities, there is a normality to daily life which stands in contrast to the deprivation across the border.
A newly married couple poses with white pigeons for a photo shoot in Dandong, China. Dandong is situated on the banks of the Yalu River, a short distance from North Korea.
A border fence near Hunchun, China that separates China and North Korea.
A farm situated next to a thermal power plant close to the North Korean border in Tumen, China.
Chinese soldiers train in the mountains outside Hunchun and near the North Korean border. Tensions have grown between the countries.
A view of the Tumen river which separates Tumen, China from Namyang, Onsong county, North Korea, at left. Tumen has a very large population of ethnic Koreans, and a detention center for captured North Koreans awaiting deportation.
A bride adjusts her veil near Jian, China, about 1 km away from the North Korean border.
A man places a red flag at the river bank across from north korea border in Dandong, China.
South Korean tourists point in Hunchun, China, point toward North Korea across the Tumen River. The Russian border lies
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Albert Bonsfills
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A Border With a View: Watching North Korea From the Outside

Mar 03, 2016

In the long, cold months, to gaze upon North Korea from China’s Dandong city is an exercise in omission. On the Chinese banks of the Yalu River, neon glares and karaoke blares. Prostitutes prowl, their legs bared even in the chill of winter. On the other side, in the Hermit Kingdom, color dissipates. Everything is brown or gray or brownish-gray: sere hills, wheezing trucks, the few factories pushing smoke into the air. At night, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea vanishes altogether, save a few glimmers of electricity.

China and North Korea were once famously as intimate as “lips and teeth.” Chairman Mao Zedong sent waves of Chinese soldiers to fight on the North’s side during the Korean War; his own son even died during the conflict. But while China has opened up its borders and economy, North Korea remains locked in socialist tyranny. Kim Jong Un—the 33-year-old scion of a hereditary dynasty—has hewed to the script of volatile dictator. Kim has tested nuclear bombs, executed economic reformers and thumbed his nose at the country’s only patron, China.

Beijing has shown increasing impatience, and last month it even joined with the U.S. to support unusually tough sanctions meant to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear-weapons program. Yet Beijing can’t push too hard—were North Korea to collapse, China’s border areas would surely be deluged by refugees. Already, this frontier, documented in all its surreal desolation by the photographer Albert Bonsfills, feels like an artifact of geopolitics. Dandong is the region’s main trading entrepôt, mostly for gray-market goods. But a boom hasn’t yet materialized, even if new economic zones and skyscrapers proliferate. Ever since the December 2013 execution of Kim’s reform-minded uncle, Jang Sung Taek, traders in both countries have been on edge. A massive Chinese-built bridge endorsed by Jang himself idles in a state of near completion—just as it has for months. “They built so much, but business is bad,” says one Dandong businessman who travels to North Korea. “Who is going to fill the empty space?”

"These photos are about loneliness," says photographer Albert Bonsfills. "These people share a landscape. They see each others, but they don't talk to each others. They are neighbors and they aren't."

With no end to North Korea’s deprivation, cross-border crime has spiked. Chinese citizens dwelling near the border, some of them ethnically Korean, live in fear of a North Korean soldier going renegade and shooting up people for cash or a bite to eat—a horror that has happened before. Meanwhile, North Korean civilians continue to sneak across the Yalu and Tumen rivers that form most of the border, despite the threat of labor camps if they are caught by China and sent home. North Korean women who make it across can work as waitresses or marry ethnic Koreans whose poverty can afford them no Chinese wives. Others toil in factories that can resemble prisons or are trafficked into prostitution. At the same time privileged North Koreans manage to send their kids to expensive private schools in China. This unlikely elite has grown rich from the electronics, home furnishings and Choco Pies—a much coveted snack—that are funneled from China into the world’s most isolated nation.

North Korea is the definition of a prison state, yet China’s 1,420-km boundary with it is remarkably porous. Despite Beijing’s regulations against proselytization, South Korean missionaries still roam the Chinese side, saving souls and defectors—and putting themselves at risk of arrest. China’s frontier with North Korea attracts an eclectic mix of people, from frontier investors and curious journalists to Chinese tourists who gawk at a country that resembles theirs but half a century ago. Borderlands enthrall, even as they dissect the earth.

Albert Bonsfills is a Spanish photographer based in Barcelona and Tokyo. Follow him on Instagram @albertbonsfills.

Alice Gabriner, who edited this photo essay, is TIME's International Photo Editor.

Hannah Beech is TIME's East Asia and China Bureau Chief.

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